The use of molecules that represent single, defined epitopes able to substitute for antigen (i.e. surrogate antigens) offers considerable advantages over the use of native antigen for the precise manipulation of the immune response. We have investigated the immunochemical characteristics of two types of surrogate hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) epitopes: (a) linear and cyclical synthetic peptides representing amino acid residues 139-147, a hydrophilic region corresponding to part of the a determinant of the HBsAg, and (b) four monoclonal antiidiotypes raised against anti-HBs mAb, two of which behave as an internal image of an a determinant. Polyclonal anti-HBs antisera bound the monoclonal antiidiotypes with affinities of the order of 10(8)/M, and to the peptides with greater than 10-fold lower affinities. However, the levels of antibody in the polyclonal antisera for the peptides was greater than for the antiidiotypes. In inhibition RIA, the surrogate antigens show concordance in that the internal image antiidiotypes inhibit the binding of both monoclonal and polyclonal anti-HBs to the linear and cyclical 139-147 peptides. These results imply that surrogate antigens could indeed be useful as potential hepatitis vaccines, but while the antiidiotypes may stimulate B cells of higher affinity, they would react with a more restricted range of B cell reactivities than would the peptides. A future HBV vaccine may thus comprise a synthetic peptide such as cyclical 139-147 or a cluster of monoclonal internal image antiidiotypes.